Author’s note: This essay contains spoilers for the 14th century British poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the 2021 film The Green Knight. If I spoil the poem for you, well, your bad, you’ve had six centuries to catch up. However, spoiling the film for you would be more understandable, so perhaps steer clear until you’ve seen it.
What do a 14th century British epic poem of Arthurian myth and a 20th century Southern gothic novelist from Georgia have in common? More than you might think.
After a year’s delay due to the pandemic, filmmaker David Lowery’s anticipated adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight finally arrived in theaters last month. As someone who discovered epic poems such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain through my love of Tolkien, and who has taught the Gawain poem multiple times to students as an English professor, I was very excited to see Lowery’s take on the story, especially after having watched his other films like the hauntingly meditative A Ghost Story and the surprisingly good remake of Pete’s Dragon.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of the original poem, it’s an odd one to be sure. At Christmastide, a mysterious Green Knight shows up to King Arthur’s court at Camelot to propose a game: one of the knights of the Round Table may strike him a blow with his own axe, but he would get the chance to return the blow in a year and a day. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and the youngest, most inexperienced knight, accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight (as one does for a Christmas game), only to have the knight pick up his severed head, remind Gawain of his promise, and ride off. The rest of the poem follows Gawain’s trials and tribulations as he eventually sets off to find the Green Knight and receive his comeuppance.
Lowery, in a similar cinematic style to A Ghost Story, turns the poem into an eerie psychological and mythic meditation on honor and character and death. He also provides some interesting twists. Whereas in the poem Gawain is already a dedicated and honorable if still inexperienced knight, in Lowery’s film Gawain (Dev Patel) longs for honor yet has no apparent will to seek it, aimlessly spending his days drinking and his nights with his favorite prostitute Essel. One of the first lines he utters in the film is “I’m not ready” as he lies dazed and drunk on the brothel floor. What he needs is a disruptive push, perhaps even a forceful one.
This is where our Southern gothic writer, none other than Flannery O’Connor, comes in. I don’t remember if anyone ever gets their head chopped off in one of her stories, but like the Gawain poem, they are full of grotesque violence. O’Connor did not revel in violence for the sake of violence, however. In her stories, violence has a specific point:
With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially… Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven. But regardless of what can be taken by it, the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him… —Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 113-114
She also says, “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work… reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost…” (Ibid, 112).
Like many of O’Connor’s characters, Gawain in Lowery’s film is living in a self-delusion that he must have stripped away. He desires honor and yet he doesn’t live honorably in his everyday life. He laments to King Arthur that he doesn’t have any tales to tell of himself, and yet he does nothing to seek them out. When he finally goes out to seek the Green Knight, he believes that this one confrontation will suddenly change him into an honorable man, as can be seen in his conversation with the lord he stays with on his journey:
Lord: And what do you hope to gain from all this? Gawain: Honor. That is why a knight does what he does. Lord: And this is what you want most in life? Gawain: It is part of the life I want. Lord: And this is all that takes for that part to be had. You do this one thing, you return home, a changed man, an honorable man, just like that? Gawain: Yes. —The Green Knight
The problem is that life doesn’t work this way, or at least not usually. We don’t suddenly become virtuous in one great moment, but we change by degrees as we make choices. As Gawain embarks on his journey to face the Green Knight and his doom, “those qualities least dispensable to his personality” are revealed and tested through violence, difficulty, and temptation. When Gawain is captured and trussed up under a tree by three young scavengers, Lowery introduces a moment where the camera pans in a circle to reveal Gawain’s skeleton, then pans back around to the still alive Gawain, who decides not to accept his fate and struggles to free himself. Both cinematically and narratively, Lowery sets up Gawain’s journey as a series of often violent encounters that offer the young knight a choice as to what kind of man he wants to be.
These encounters culminate in Gawain’s arrival at the Green Chapel. It is important to note at this point that at the outset of his adventure Gawain was given a magic green girdle by his mother, Morgan le Fay, which would protect him from any danger (basically like a cheat code for the Hero’s Journey). Gawain loses the girdle to the scavengers, but is later offered another magic girdle if he succumbs to the sexual temptation of the wife of the Lord whose home he stays in, which he does.
So Gawain finally arrives to receive his blow from the Green Knight, decked with this hopefully magic girdle, and yet when the time comes, he flinches, and then (gasps and puzzlements for those familiar with the original poem) he runs away back home. He returns home, is knighted by Arthur and then becomes king upon Arthur’s death. He has a child with Essel, but then takes their son and abandons her because she is not of noble blood. He marries a princess, rules a crumbling kingdom, sees his son die in war, gets scorned by his people, and finally sits alone in his castle while his enemies break down his gates. He removes the green girdle that he’s worn all this time and his head rolls off.
Except none of this has happened. He’s still in the Green Chapel, kneeling before the Green Knight, about to have his head lopped off. And then this scene happens:
Gawain: Wait. *Gawain removes the green girdle and casts it aside* Gawain: There. Now I’m ready. I’m ready now. Green Knight: Well done, my brave knight. Now… *draws a finger across Gawain’s neck* Off with your head *smiles* —The Green Knight
When faced with the ultimate violent confrontation—his own swift death—Gawain has a revelation of what his life would be like if he were to live the way he always has, desiring honor but not truly living in an honorable way. He would obtain power and prestige, but he’d still have to face death and his own falsehood in the end anyway. So after the many mistakes and false starts and small steps toward virtue in the film, he finally chooses to die with honesty. However he may have lived before, he chooses to take honesty “into eternity with him” to quote O’Connor.
And surprisingly to Gawain, this is when his moment of grace arrives. Instead of killing him, the Green Knight commends him, playfully pantomimes cutting off his head, and smiles. Some viewers have thought this ending ambiguous, but after watching the film a second time, it’s pretty clear to me that Gawain lives and the Green Knight lets him go in peace, much like in the poem.
Through this violent—and yet ultimately not fatal—game, Gawain is forced to confront his truest self and decide what man he would like to be. Ironically, this one moment does prove to be the final catalyst in changing him into an honorable man, or at least a man who is now ready to try and live honestly for the rest of his days.
The Green Knight is rated R for violence, some sexuality, and graphic nudity.